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Constance Alexander: The simple gift of reading brings peace on earth during Christmas season

In Iceland during World War II, foreign imports were restricted and gift options were scarce. Even though paper was cheap, such a small country could not support a year-round publishing industry. As a result, book publishers flooded the market with new titles in the final weeks of the year, thus launching the Icelandic tradition of Jólabókaflóð.

To make the Christmas Eve tradition possible, the Bokatidindi, a free catalog of every new book published in Iceland, is distributed to every home in Iceland around this time of year. Books are exchanged on Christmas Eve, and the rest of the night is spent reading.

For Americans swamped by holiday frenzy, the idea of easing into Christmas through reading may sound strange, but for the third most literate country in the world (behind Finland and Norway), reading a book on Christmas Eve is a perfect way to welcome the holiday.

As social media has spread the word about Jólabókaflóð, the tradition is taking hold elsewhere. For those thinking of establishing the practice at home in Kentucky, “True Christmas Stories from the Heart of Appalachia” would be a great place to start.

The unique anthology, published by the Jesse Stuart Foundation, is a collection of forty-three stories written by thirty-nine authors. Most of the writers are from Kentucky, and thirty-five of the pieces are set in Kentucky. Arranged chronologically, they begin with an account from the 1900’s entitled “Christmas in the Country Store,” by Dr. Thomas D. Clark, Kentucky’s Historian Laureate for Life.

Dr. Clark’s account is rich with the scents and textures of holiday time at the old country store. ”New boxes, bales, barrels, and sacks obstructed the passageways and overflowed onto the shelves and counters,” he wrote.

“Bags of coconut were ripped open and the tops of the sacks rolled down displaying their fuzzy brown wares awaiting purchase by the cake makers.”

Holiday specialties were superimposed over the regular stock, creating a “seductive state of confusion.” Among firecrackers, torpedoes, and Roman Candles, were boxes and barrels of candy. Toys were hung from the ceiling, amidst everyday items of lanterns, horse collars, and buggy whips.

The beginning of the last century was an era of simple gifts. “Fruits and nuts were items of real luxury for the Southerner,” Dr. Clark wrote, “and they were purchased only in the spending orgies of Christmas time.”

“For the countryman the store at Christmas time was literally a meeting place of stark everyday reality with a fantastic world of temporary but pleasant escape,” Dr. Clark’s reminiscence ends.

Other stories in the book include a 1929 description of Christmas in a one-room school; a tale about 1940, when Santa Claus Visited Martin, Kentucky; and a memoir of 2014, when Keith Kappes wrote, “Stuff You Learn While Ringing a Bell.”

The anthology ends with a poem by beloved Kentucky author, Jesse Stuart. Entitled “Christmas,” it begins like this:

The glory and the pageantry will pass

Into another year’s oblivion

Like August evening sounds in meadow grass

Our offerings and songs will linger on.

“True Christmas Stories from the Heart of Appalachia” is available at the Jesse Stuart Foundation for $25 or five copies for $100. The book was edited by James M. Gifford, Judith F. Kidwell, and Wayne Onkst. Contact the foundation at 606-326-1667 or online at www.jsfbooks.com for ordering information.

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Constance Alexander is a columnist, award-winning poet and playwright, and President of INTEXCommunications in Murray. She can be reached at calexander9@murraystate.edu. Or visit www.constancealexander.com.

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One Comment

  1. Anne Adams says:

    Ken Wolf and I (based on yesterday’s brief discussion) love any and all that your write……plus hundreds of others as well!! Wonderful, as always!!

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